Violin Concerto

Programme note

Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963)
Concerto Funebre for violin and strings (1940)

Introduction: Largo
Adagio
Allegro di molto
Chorale: Langsamer Marsch

Ten years younger than the Munich-born Carl Orff, who worked publicly, productively and popularly in Germany throughout the Nazi era, Karl Amadeus Hartmann was another Münchener who stuck to the fatherland during the Second World War but chose to compose secretly in the more progressive manner to be expected of a pupil of Anton Webern. No doubt his survival depended on his ability to keep his head down and on his willingness to forfeit the public performances of his music which would, in any case, have been denied him. Not everyone, after all, was an Orff, all too ready to replace Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream pieces with music of his own. Even Hartmann’s orchestral work, Miserae, written in tribute to those who were dying in the nearby Dachau concentration camp, had its passionate raison d’être suppressed when it received its premiere in Prague in 1935. If Hartmann’s anti-fascist music failed to provoke reprisal, it was because he kept much of it hidden and destroyed the rest. But as soon as the war ended, he was ready to seize his moment. In the autumn of 1945 he founded a Musica Viva festival in what was left of Munich, championing Schoenberg as well as himself and showing where his beliefs really lay.

Of his eight symphonies, the second, completed in 1946, was a substantial Mahlerish adagio, and the fifth, in 1950, was a homage to Stravinsky, quoting the opening bassoon solo from The Rite of Spring. Tonight’s Concerto Funebre, on the other hand, had managed to receive its premiere ten years earlier at St Gallen in Switzerland, after being smuggled across the border, but it made no headway until the German violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan took up its cause in 1959. As with the earlier Miserae, the music delivered an anti-Nazi message, conveying Hartmann’s despair over the occupation of Czechoslovakia along with his deeply-held – though in this work somewhat ambiguous – feelings that light in the end must follow darkness.

The music, lasting about twenty minutes, opens with a short introduction quoting the Hussite chorale 'Ye Who Are God’s Warriors', previously employed by Smetana in his patriotic cycle of symphonic poems Ma Vlast (My Homeland). The four-movement structure, said the composer, was designed to reflect the “intellectual and spiritual hopelessness of the period, contrasted with an expression of hope”. The desolate Adagio, placing piercing strands of solo violin tone in a bed of sombre strings, ultimately fades into the work’s one quick movement, an explosion of Bartókian devices in which torrents of notes and hammering rhythms bring the work to an abrasive climax. This in turn dies out, leaving the way clear for the final funeral march, or elegy, with its chorale-like atmosphere (hints of Alban Berg) and eloquent seam of violin tone, towards which the entire work has clearly been heading. This song of death murmurs onward until the orchestra cuts it off with a stern final chord.

© Conrad Wilson